"On 1"... "On 2" ...
We generally talk about "dancing on 1" as opposed to "dancing on 2". The fact is that it is still possible to dance "on 3" and "on 4". The discussion could be extended to what is "dancing on 5, 6, 7 or 8". For clarity sake, we will suppose in this article that dancing on 1 is the same as dancing on 5, and that dancing on 2 is the same as dancing on 6 (which, although not stricly true, will help us to better understand this timing issue)
"Dancing on 1" is often referred to as "breaking on 1" or simply as "on 1". We define if we dance "on 1" or "on 2" according to the timing when we step forward during our basic step. If you come to our courses, you have probably recognised that we teach you to step forward on 1 (if you are a leader, or on 5 if you are a follower, but remember that in our simplification we made 1 = 5 ;-). Although this is the way we teach, it is possible as well to step forward "on 2". So far, so good.
All "On 1" dancers make the same step: we walk on 1-2-3, 5-6-7. If you are a leader, you step forward on 1 and backward on 5 (vice versa if you are a follower). You can see it in this animated gif image.
(The black footprint represents the foot that supports the weight)
On 2 (Palladium)
On the other side, "On 2" dancers do not agree about how they have to perform the "break on 2". Some of them walk during 2-3-4, 6-7-8, stepping forward on 2 and backward on 6 (exactly the same than "on 1" dancers, but just shifting one beat all the dance). This is often referred to as "Palladium Style", "Power 2" or "Ballroom Mambo". In this article we will only call it "Palladium". This timing stems from the traditional Cuban son, but unfortunately there are not so many pages written about "Son on 2" as they are about "Palladium on 2".
On 2 (Eddie Torres)
Some others "on 2" dancers decided to step on 1-2-3, 5-6-7 (as "on 1" dancers!) but instead of stepping forward on 1, they step forward "on 2" (actually the leader steps forward "on 6", but we will not mess with this for now). This is often referred to as "New York Style On 2", "Ballroom 2" or "Eddie Torres Style" (Eddie Torres being a famous NY dancer who made this style popular). In this article we will refer to it as "ET style". It looks something like this:
Disagreement among "On 2" dancers
Beware the name "New York Style on 2". The well known Razz m'Tazz Dance Company, as some other companies based in New York, dance and teach Palladium style. They also claim they teach "NY style on 2". Just to illustrate the conflict between the different "on 2" dancers, please read this extract from the Razz m'Tazz web site:
"Why do they teach Ballroom 2 [ET2] instead of the Power 2 [Palladium]? Well, quite simply, because it's easier to do.And why is it easier? Because people have an easier time stepping on "1" than waiting for the "2." Most people can find "1," the first beat in the music, but haven't developed the ear to find "2." So stepping "one-two" is like a handy cheat for breaking on "2." "
But why all this mess? Nobody argues about whether tango should be danced on 2, or R&R on 3, or waltz on 4 (yes, I know...waltz have only three beats per bar). In my opinion, this mess is naturally originated by one of the features that makes salsa so appealing: the complex melting pot of rhythms contained in the salsa music. You can find rhythmic elements to follow on any beat. "On 2" dancers are more "clave-centric" or "conga-centric". "On 1" dancers are more "melody-centric". There are in the web tens of articles describing why you should dance on 1 and why you should dance on 2. We recommend you to read "Do I need to learn how to dance on the 2?". This article (originaly published in Salsa-UK website) is an ironic and acid defense of "on 1" dancers (I admit I love this article). You may find as well partisans of "on 2" dancing in www.salsanewyork.com (Thanks to Antonio for the tip!)
My humble opinion
Probably you want to know my opinion (if not, just skip the rest of this article). Well, we (C&F) teach "on 1". While Filo is well known for her passion for NY on 2, I am rather melody-centric. I am Spanish, and so I can easily sing the salsa songs while I dance. If I sing a salsa I can only feel to dancing it "on 1". If I follow the conga then I prefer to dance on 2. To follow the clave or the conga while dancing "devórame otra vez" (and many other salsa songs) is like watching at the plane in the background when Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman "We'll always have Paris". Yes, the plane is there: it might be very interesting for you if you are an antique plane freak, a pilot or an engineer, but (whatever is your mumbo-jumbo about the clave and the tumbao), the climax is not in the background.
There is a very widely spread urban legend that says that dancing "on 2" gives you more time to perform the patterns. This is nothing but a legend that so far nobody could sensibly explain. Patterns in Palladium style are exactly the same than patterns "on 1". You may change emphasis, but the time needed to perform a given pattern is exactly the same. Without music, it is not possible to recognise if the couple is dancing "on 1" or Palladium. On the other side, "ET2" requires a completely different timing, but still you have only 8 beats to perform a Cross Body Lead. You can still find the "quick-quick-slow" pattern. While dancing the basic step "On 1" or Palladium, we perform the "slow" beats while opening our feet (the transition between having our feet more or less close together to make a step either forward or backward). While dancing "ET2" we perform the "slow" beat when we bring our feet (more or less) together!!! (check this at the amimated gifs in this page). This makes you feel that you move slower at certain moments (you get some "extra time") but unmistakably you have to move faster afterwards to catch it up. Einstein explained how you can stretch time by travelling close to the light speed. He ever said nothing about dancing on 2 producing the same result.
Nevertheless there are some real arguments in favour of "on 2" dancing. It is true that instrumental salsa (latin jazz) and some vocal ones (like most of Tito Puente songs) are easier to feel them "on 2". This type of salsa is often referred to as "mambo" -without "jumbo". And why it is easier to feel "on 2"? Simply the melody has been removed, or become too rhythmic rather than true melody, or it is so jazzy that you can not feel the downbeat as in romantic or melodic salsa. Remember that Tito Puente, who seemed to be a strong supporter of dancing "on 2", was a percussionist. His vocal songs are plenty of rhythmic patterns in the voice. Traditional Cuban son was danced as well "on 2". Son is melodic, but the presence of the clave and bongos is so strong that you can easily claim to feel it "on 2". In modern salsa, clave is often very much hidden and the congas are sometimes difficult to find for a non-trained ear. In that case, my simply advice is "dance it in the beat you feel you should dance it"
Do I mean that there is music more appropriate to dance "on 1" and some other more appropriate to dance "on 2"? Honestly I think so. And I think that many DJs do too. You can very seldom listen to instrumental salsa in most of the European salsotecas, while in NY and salsa congresses mambo is predominant.
My advice? First learn to dance correctly and steadily in any of the two most widespread ways (either "on 1" or "on 2"). If by then you have got the salsa virus inside you, then try to experience the other one. And then you will be free to dance in the beat you want to, in the beat you feel each piece of music. Do you need to take new lessons? Certainly not. Please refer to my article
"Listen to the salsa beat". There I explain how to switch from "dancing on 1" to "dancing on 2" and vice versa. It just a matter of listening, there is no need to re-learn all the patterns you already know. In that article I treat as well the subtleties about the difference between the "one" and the "five" (and the "two" and the "six")